The Libertarian Vote

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The main theme of political commentary inthis decade is polarization. Since the battles overthe impeachment of President Clinton and theFlorida vote in 2000, pundits have been telling usthat we're a country split down the middle, redvs. blue, liberal vs. conservative. Political analyststalk about base motivation and the shrinking ofthe swing vote. But the evidence says they arewrong.

Not all Americans can be classified as liberalor conservative. In particular, polls find thatsome 10 to 20 percent of voting-age Americansare libertarian, tending to agree with conservativeson economic issues and with liberals on personalfreedom. The Gallup Governance Surveyconsistently finds about 20 percent of respondentsgiving libertarian answers to a two-questionscreen.

Our own data analysis is stricter. We find 9 to13 percent libertarians in the Gallup surveys, 14percent in the Pew Research Center TypologySurvey, and 13 percent in the American NationalElection Studies, generally regarded as the bestsource of public opinion data.

For those on the trail of the elusive swing voter,it may be most notable that the libertarian voteshifted sharply in 2004. Libertarians preferredGeorge W. Bush over Al Gore by 72 to 20 percent,but Bush's margin dropped in 2004 to 59-38 overJohn Kerry. Congressional voting showed a similarswing from 2002 to 2004. Libertarians apparentlybecame disillusioned with Republican overspending,social intolerance, civil liberties infringements,and the floundering war in Iraq. If that trend continuesinto 2006 and 2008, Republicans will loseelections they would otherwise win.

The libertarian vote is in play. At some 13 percentof the electorate, it is sizable enough toswing elections. Pollsters, political strategists,candidates, and the media should take note of it.

David Boaz and David Kirby

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute. He is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer and editor of The Libertarian Reader, Toward Liberty, and Left, Right & Babyboom: America's New Politics. David Kirby is executive director of America's Future Foundation and a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.